I think that what is lost in many of the discussions about police accountability and the need for transparency in police-community relations are the real experiences that real people are having everyday with aggressive policing.
Here is one of mine:
After teaching a class at the University of Pittsburgh, on a spring evening a few years ago, I walked through Schenley Park to pick up my contact lens order from Eyetique in Squirrel Hill. I decided to walk, even though my car was parked at the university, because it was one of the first days with warmer weather that year. I wanted to enjoy it.
On my way back to the university, on Circuit Drive, a police car, lights flashing, came to a halt beside me. The officer jumped out and shouted for me to get spread eagle across the trunk of his car because, he said, a burglary had just been committed in the area.
I tried to comply but something inside of me was repelled by the thought of seeing myself, wearing eyeglasses, business casual clothing and carrying a little plastic bag containing contact lenses, being spread across the trunk of the policeman’s car. There were other people along Circuit Drive that evening, but they were white and they weren’t stopped.
I was startled by the police man’s aggressive behavior. I froze in my tracks. I did not comply.
Although I wanted to comply, only to avoid making a bad situation worse, my body resisted. This is what was running through my mind:
“I can’t do this. The university is right down the street and my church, St. Paul Cathedral, is within blocks of here. What if my students, or members of my parish, see me spread eagle across the trunk of this cop’s car? There will be nothing I can do to squash the rumors in my church that ‘that black lector and Eucharistic minister’ had committed a crime. And there will be nothing I can do to stop those same rumors from spreading among my students and colleagues at the university.”
The officer reached for his gun because I was not in compliance.
A description of the perpetrator of the burglary crackled over his radio: “We’re looking for a white male in his early 20s, about 5’7, wearing a white t-shirt and running away from the scene of the crime.”
I was a middle-aged black male, 6’1, dressed in business casual clothing, and I hadn’t been breaking a sweat until the cop rushed up on me.
Once we both heard the description of the perpetrator he was forced to let me go, but not before he defensively and unapologetically shouted over his shoulder “I’m just doing my job.”
When I had a chance to catch my breath, my heart was still pounding, I thought about what had just happened I realized that I could have easily wound up as another story on the evening news: a black man who was shot dead because he didn’t comply with police orders. If not shot, then I could have been arrested. Try to explain that to the dean.
Non-compliance is a favorite discretionary charge that many officers use against black people in the city of Baltimore, where I am currently attending seminary. Neighborhood perceptions that this is happening are supported by the results from recent investigations of the Baltimore PD by the U.S. Department of Justice.
It is easy to say all one has to do is comply, but when the situation happens, and you are in-the-moment, if the officer’s behavior seems unreasonable and you are physically threatened, the fear that leads to non-compliance should probably not be justification for summary execution, or — in many cases — even arrest.
Police should try to diffuse the tension in their interaction with the public, not ratchet up these situations.
After more than 50 years of this, we are not crazy for saying this is a problem, and we are not unreasonable for being fed up with it.
C. Matthew Hawkins is a seminarian in Baltimore, MD for the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese. He previously taught in the School of Social Work, at the University of Pittsburgh, the History Department of Carlow University and Imani Christian Academy in East Hills.